Friday, January 04, 2008

Halfway Done, Halfway There

It's been a bit of a roller coaster ride this year for the entire Caps organization, from players to fans to staff. We've had big moments good and bad, milestones at all levels, new faces and pivotal moments galore - and we've only played 41 games.

So where have we been and where are we going? Before we get into the second half of the season, it seems like a perfect time to look back at a very eventful first half...and look ahead to what's in store.

5 Key Games

October 5, 2007

Caps at Thrashers, Season Opener - Caps win 3-1
There were hints of what was to come in the preseason and there were murmurs among the experts that had the Caps coming out as a sleeper team in the East. But until the Caps unveiled their opening night lineup on enemy ice, no one knew what to really expect. It only took one period for us to see that, when firing at all cylinders, this was a team with great potential to do great things.

Goals from Nylander and Kozlov bookmarked a rare Erskine tally and Nicklas Backstrom picked up his first NHL point as the Caps went on to spoil Atlanta's banner-raising party, 3-1. And they were off and running...

November 8, 2007
Caps at Senators - Caps win 4-1
Talk about the ultimate underdog. The Caps came into Ottawa having lost four straight; their opponents, the mighty Senators, were flying high and had just won their eighth straight game. This wasn't supposed to be a contest...but the Caps made it one.

After a scoreless first, it felt like whoever got the first goal was going to win - and surprisingly it was the Caps who got on the board. Kozlov kicked off the offense halfway through the second and then followed it up with two assists as the Caps struck twice more in the next five minutes. An Ovechkin tally late in the third would cap off the scoring and the upset was complete.

November 21, 2007
Thrashers at Caps - Caps lose 5-1
Last year's Thanksgiving Eve matchup against the Thrashers was a bloodbath - literally. This year Atlanta came to town and engaged in a bloodbath of a different kind, taking advantage of a flat Capitals team and putting a five-spot on the board before the night was over. The Caps dropped their fifth straight, a season high, and saw their home record continue to be the worst in the league.

But this game will be remembered less for what happened during the game and more for what happened after. The next morning as Caps fans readied their Thanksgiving feasts they were greeted with the news that Glen Hanlon had been removed from duty, and the most recent callup from Hershey was interim coach Bruce Boudreau.

December 7, 2007
Caps at Devils - Caps lose 3-2
This game against a streaking Devils team was yet another game that saw the Caps come out sluggish early, fall behind, and simply be unable to claw their way back in.

But again, it was what happened after this game that makes it a pivotal moment in the season.

Coach Bruce Boudreau, just two weeks into his new gig, expressed his displeasure in the way the team started against the Devils during his postgame press conference. He went so far as to call out specific guys for their performance - and one of them was venerable goaltender Olie Kolzig, a player who always seemed to be off limits for criticism regardless of performance. A coach singling out players is nothing new, but Boudreau made sure it was done respectfully (you might call it unTortorella-esque).

And the team responded. The very next game they jumped out to an early lead and rolled over the Thrashers, then proceeded to even the score with the same team that had defeated them just days before with a 3-2 victory over the Devils. It was a defining moment for Boudreau's new regime.

December 17, 2007
Caps at Red Wings - Caps lose in shootout, 4-3
Like the Ottawa game before it, this was one for which the Caps were expected to merely show up and take the loss standing up. A good showing was all many people were hoping for - just don't get blown out on national television and live to fight another day.

The Caps again proved that they're nobody's underdog, though, matching the powerful Red Wings punch for punch. The Wings might have come out a bit sluggish and the Caps took a surprising lead into the first intermission, but like any good team Detroit regrouped and showed why they're the best in the league. A Semin goal in the waning minutes of the third sent it to overtime, and then a shootout, where the Caps were a goalpost away from making it interesting before the Detroit arsenal went to work.

The next day, though, there was nothing but respect (if not badly veiled surprise) from many members of the Red Wings organization and the media at large. It was a loss but one that gave the Caps and their fans a bit more confidence that they could, in fact, compete with the best.

5 Storylines
Glen Hanlon fired
The writing was seemingly on the wall for a long time. The Caps, after shooting out of the gate with a remarkable 3-0 record, had stumbled to the bottom of the league and stayed there. Scattered wins broken up by lengthy losing streaks set off the calls for Hanlon's job and it seemed to be only a matter of time before a regime change was in order.

Time was up when the Caps dropped their fifth straight, a season high, in a sluggish loss to division rivals. Chants of "Fire Hanlon" were louder than any other that night and sure enough, the next morning he was removed and replaced by Boudreau.

Hanlon's legacy in DC shouldn't be defined by the early stumbles of the team in this campaign. Rather it should reflect all the wonderful things he did with a young, developing team in the years after the lockout. The Caps became known for their work ethic and their talented young players - and it was because of Hanlon that this reputation grew. He was the perfect coach for that particular team at that particular moment, and that much should never be forgotten.

Mike Green Arrives
Mike Green has long been one of those "someday" stories for the Caps. Drafted in the first round of the '04 draft yet overshadowed by a certain Russian taken first in that same draft, Green's potential was there but the results had yet to be seen on the ice.

He came into training camp this year with a vengeance, though, and proceeded to blow people away with his performance. A heated battle for the six defensemen slots was raging and yet there seemed to be no question that Green belonged. Stronger and more confident, he stood out in the early preseason as someone who was coming into his own.

The real shift came, however, when Boudreau stepped in. Suddenly Green was playing more minutes - and earning them. He was making plays on both ends of the ice, including stunning offensive displays that were reminiscent of Paul Coffey in his prime. And while he still continues to grow and develop, learning to take the stupid mistakes out of his game and play better in his own end, his offensive production and solid defense are quietly making him known around the league.

Alex Ovechkin's Evolution
From the start, Ovechkin has cultivated a reputation as being a dominant power forward with a killer shot, great hands, and the ability to run over opponents without a second thought. But after a 100+ point rookie season he seemed to fall victim to the sophomore jinx, and both of his first two seasons were tempered by a somewhat casual relationship with defensive responsibility.

The Ovechkin that has emerged in the first half of this season is a completely different player. He's still able to wow you with the moves and he's among the league leaders in goals, but it's the little things he's doing that are getting him recognition. He's learned to play smarter, adding backchecking and defensive zone positioning to his already impressive resume. He's also emerged as a leader, appearing much more comfortable with the letter on his chest this season than he did at any point last year. He's turned his game around to become a much more well-rounded and dependable player.

And he's only going to get better.

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries
Every team has injuries. But it seems like this year they've been more persistent, more damaging and more likely to come at the worst possible time. The Caps will pick up some steam and string together a few wins only to have their lineup decimated by the injury bug.

A team that prides itself on chemistry on and off the ice, the Caps have been without key players for long stretches of time. They've played about half the season and continue to play without the services of their captain, Chris Clark. Boyd Gordon, one of the team's best faceoff men and penalty killers, has missed long stretches with assorted injuries. Tom Poti, Alexander Semin, and Brian Pothier continue to be taken out with injuries of varying degrees of severity.

It seems like we're still waiting to see the full roster as it was imagined when the season started - and we're already halfway through the year.

Nicklas Backstrom
When Backstrom was drafted the buzz about him was that he had great hockey sense, was a smart player with amazing vision on the ice, the ability to read plays and make the intelligent choice.

Boy, was that an understatement. The newly anointed rookie of the month has been a truly pleasant surprise in a season filled with not so pleasant ones. Every night it seems like he grows more confident and some of the plays he's made to set up goals or score goals of his own are beyond highlight-worthy. Since Thanksgiving he's picked up 20 points and already has seven multi-point games on the year to his credit, all while being defensively responsible and smart in his own end.

On a team stocked with young talent he's been a standout in every sense of the word and more than enough reason for Caps fans to look forward to the coming years.

5 Stars of the First Half

Bruce Boudreau

He may not be lacing up the skates and scoring the goals, but it's hard to deny what Boudreau has done with this team. Since taking over in November the Caps are 10-6-4 and have climbed out of the league basement. They sit six points out of a playoff spot and seven points out of first place in the division - and there's a new confidence about this team that was missing for a good part of the early games. What's more, the young players are growing into their roles at a staggering rate under Boudreau and that can only mean good things for this team down the line - whether the playoffs are in the cards or not.

Nicklas Backstrom
It isn't every day that a high draft pick can not only step right into the NHL but start making some noise. The Caps were lucky enough to have someone like that in Ovechkin two years ago and they've found it again with Backstrom. Even better than his natural ability that is so obvious every shift is the fact that he seems to get better every game. He complements Ovechkin perfectly but can show some flash and dash in his own right. Backstrom is the consummate playmaker with great hands, great vision, and great potential to be a huge part of this Caps team down the line.

Mike Green

So far this year the Caps have gotten 20 goals from their defense; 10 of them have come from Green, who has found a new level to his game and a new jump to his step this year. It's something that the Caps have been waiting for since drafting him and something that we've only seen flashes of in the past. But this season he's truly come into his own and is starting to generate some buzz around the league for his strong play.

Brooks Laich

It may seem like a strange choice, but Brooks Laich is becoming exactly the kind of player the Caps need him to be - a scrappy winger/center/penalty killer/second-third-fourth line player who can fill any void and chip in some goals in the meantime. He's one goal shy of his career best in a season and has become dominant in the faceoff circle as well as in a penalty-killing role. Brooks has avoided his usual early sluggishness and come out firing, getting his first goal of the season in just the third game of the season...a goal that would prove to be the game-winner.

Alex Ovechkin

It's pretty much a given that Ovechkin will be on any sort of list like this every season. He's the cornerstone of this team, one of it's leaders, and among the best players in the league right now. And given the fact that he's improved upon what was already a pretty good game...what more is there to say?

5 Things to Watch in the Second Half

Special Teams
It's been said to death. Since the lockout you won't get anywhere if your special teams aren't successful, and we've seen how true that is the last two years. This season the Caps seem to be improving both shorthanded and with the extra man but are still ranked in the bottom half of the league in each. So there's still some work to do...

Olie Kolzig
Olie has gone from being very shaky to very solid to shaky to solid again. In other words...inconsistent. Johnson has been the same, although with a smaller number of games and now his injury it's hard to tell how much is inconsistency and how much is just shaking off the rust. You won't get anywhere in the playoffs without solid, if not spectacular goaltending - of course, you won't get into the playoffs period if you don't have that either, so the goalies need to pull it together if the team wants to make a run. Olie has put in a few great performances these last few days, but can he keep it up? Something to watch.

Okay, it had to be said. Right now it's too early to panic and wring our hands, but in the second half of the season this team is going to have to start locking people up or risk losing not only their big names but the role players as well. We're not just talking Ovechkin - in fact his contract is probably among the least of our worries.

Eminger, Morrisonn, Fleischmann, Green, Gordon, Laich and Fehr will all be restricted agents along with #8 come July 1. Kolzig has said he wants to play two more years but he becomes unrestricted this summer; so do Bradley, Brashear and Laing. That's a lot of people who have to be qualified, extended or cut loose...and that means a stressful second half for McPhee.

Secondary Scoring
Every package of highlights from a Caps game seems to start by saying that Ovechkin has so and so % of the Caps' offensive production, and it's true. He continues to provide a huge chunk of the offense - but the percentage has dropped, particularly in the last month, when it went from close to 30% down to about 25%. He's supposed to score goals, that's his job, but secondary scoring and a balanced attack are crucial to any team.

Games the team has won almost always consist of offense from unlikely sources as well as the likely ones. People like Gordon, Pettinger, and Steckel as well as the defensemen will be looked to for more production - and hey, if Olie and Johnny want to add a few, that couldn't hurt either.
Playoff Push
There are currently ten points separating 14th place, where the Capitals sit, from second place in the conference. There are ten points between last place and third in the conference...and ten between first and fifth in the division. The Caps will need a combination of wins and help from the rest of the conference if they want to make a postseason appearance, and the race is only going to get tighter the closer we get to the end of the season.

Obviously between now and the end of the season every game is crucial, particularly the division matchups. But there are a few key stretches to take note of.

First, the Caps will have the longest home stretch of the second half over the next few weeks, starting Wednesday when they host the Avalanche and continuing until Monday the 19th when the Panthers come to call. After that they won't be home for longer than four games in a row for the rest of they year, and that happens only once.

Which brings us to the other key stretch, which will be the six game road swing conveniently scheduled for the last two weeks of March. They'll hit the last two Central Division teams, Nashville and Chicago, before taking a tour of the Southeast. While the Caps haven't been horrible on the road they haven't been great either - and take this however you want to, but four of their five overtime or shootout losses have come away from Verizon Center.


And that brings us to tomorrow's matinee against the Canadiens. The Habs have won three of their last four, the Caps two of their last three. As has been the case over the last few years, the Habs are dominant with the extra man but much less terrifying five on five. If the Caps can stay out of the box and shake off whatever was wrong with them against Boston, they should pull out a win.

Remember, it's a 12:30 start which I'm fairly certain was done so it wouldn't entirely conflict with the medal rounds of the World Juniors. And if you're interested in catching those, USA takes on Russia for the bronze at 10:00 am on NHL Network, while Captain Karl Alzner and fellow Caps prospect Josh Godfrey will lead Canada against Sweden for the gold at 2:00 pm.


DMG said...

I hate to make excuses but injuries have played a huge part. Recently on TSN someone wrote in that in an columnist's article (I think it was about fantasy hockey) most teams had 0-1 key injuries and very few had 2 and asked what the criteria was. the columnist said that top 4 defenseman, starting goalies and top 6 forwards counted. If that's the case the Caps have been really bad off - Semin's played 23, Clark 17, Poti 34.

Anonymous said...

I would be SO SURPRISED if they didn't keep Laing around in some form or another. I'm so glad the guy finally got the break he's been deserving. And I hear that we may be getting our other captain back soon as well down here in chocolateville.....

Ellie said...

green was definitely a force to be seen the last caps/pens game i saw. sometimes good things are worth the wait i guess...

what an interesting year for ovechkin. i agree he does seem to be much more comfortable with his position on the team. but i still get the impression he wants more and is able to give more.

do you think the new uniforms had anything to do with anything? : )